“Look @ Us!” A Breath of Fresh Air at the Berkshire Museum
Director Stuart Chase with a Warhol of Ted Kennedy
Until now, you had to be a mad dog or masochist to visit the Berkshire Museum in July or August. “It was ghastly here,” admits executive director Stuart Chase. But now that the 105- year-old museum on South Street in Pittsfield has finally gotten central air conditioning, it may be one of the most refreshing places to spend a hot and humid summer afternoon.
The new AC (or, more accurately, state-of-the-art climate control) is not just about comfort; it’s about aesthetics. Many fragile pieces from the museum’s permanent collection—a magnificent watercolor by Edouard Vuillard, a study of a portrait of Thomas Carlyle by James A.M. Whistler (below), photographs by Alfred Stieglitz—have never been exhibited before. What’s more, the museum is showing works borrowed from another museum for the first time in its history. “For decades, we’ve been lending things to other museums but we’ve never gotten anything back because we lacked air conditioning,” explains Chase.
Now, for its Look @ Us! exhibit of portraiture, the museum has borrowed works from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, including an early Alex Katz painting of his wife, Ada, a stunning 1995 Chuck Close silkscreen portrait, and an Andy Warhol photo strip of Edie Sedgwick, the tragic “superstar” with Stockbridge roots. The Whitney trade came about because the Berkshire Museum has a unique collection of nine wooden push-and-pull toys designed by Alexander Calder in 1927; the Whitney is borrowing them for Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926 - 1933, which opens in New York on October 16.
With the addition of these borrowed works from the Whitney, including a Warhol of Ted Kennedy, and many busts from the museum’s archives, Look @ Us! has broad appeal. “We think of ourselves as a family museum,” says Chase, who has designed the show to engage all ages and to have interactive components. The museum has even created Facebook pages for some of the portraits in the show and there are computer stations where you can visit them.
At the end of the exhibit, there’s an old fashioned photo booth that has been retrofitted to produce a color postcard with four images. It costs $3, and you can take the postcard home but many people are leaving them behind so that they become part of the Look @ Us! exhibit. When I visited the other day, three schoolteachers were in the booth and they were cackling hysterically. “That’s one of the things that makes the Berkshire Museum different ,” says Chase, smiling broadly. “We like to hear laughter in our galleries. We are not a stuffy museum.”
Stuart Chase and colleagues have fun in the photo booth; you can too.